Drugstore Brands and Effective and Safe Alternatives

Stuck on a long train journey with a pile of magazines, I began to make tearsheets of the advertised beauty brands. A ton of marketing dollars go into drugstore and department store beauty brands, and I was interested to see how they stack up to independent alternatives. Here's what I found:

CC cream

Department store: Clinique Moisture Surge CC Cream ($35). Clinique has vaulted over the now tired BB creams (including its own) to launch a CC (which to the cynical might be thought to stand for “cosmetic con”). This glorified sunscreen (two chemical and two mineral sunscreens) has its fair share of synthetic ingredients such as isopropyl titanium triisostearate that don’t contribute anything good to the skin and a few such as alumina that may do harm. Mostly though, Clinique’s CC cream is mediocre with the only standout being thermus thermophillus ferment, a biotechnologically derived marine extract. Being heat activated (e.g. when the skin is exposed to the warmth of the sun), it will activate the body’s natural antioxidant enzymes. Also worth a call-out is trehalose. This one of those magical constituents of desert plants that helps them rehydrate after periods of drought.

Alternative: Juice Beauty’s Stem Cellular Repair CC Cream ($39 in the shop). This may be the only organic CC cream on the market. With real anti-aging credentials, it has the same proprietary blend of fruit stem cells found in the Repair Booster Serum. The sunscreen active is a 20% concentration of non-nano, micronized zinc oxide. There is vitamin C (in MAP form) and E. Magnesium sulfate serves as a natural anti-inflammatory. Unlike silicone-loaded BB creams, it has a light mousse-like texture and goes on easily. The cream feels like a light moisturizer that disappears into skin. Read the full review.

Retinol serum

Drugstore: Boots No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Serum ($24.99). When this British potion launched, it caused stampedes in the aisles (or so the story goes). Why anyone would go out of their way for No 7 Intense is beyond me. The main actives are retinyl palmitate and vitamin C. Although it has to be admitted that once you get past the parabens, the very last ingredient is the peptide Matrixyl 3000. I tried to use it and gave up when it caused an allergic reaction.

Alternatives: Osmosis Correct ($56) has, in addition to 0.5% retinaldehyde, an interesting selection of actives. There’s firming and lifting caprooyl tetrapeptide-3, copper peptides and amino acids. Best of all, there is almost nothing to dislike. I also like Amarte HydroLift Cream ($70). This is a new find with 0.6% retinol. Our tester saw a notable, even impressive diminution of brown spots and wrinkles (see the before and afters). Ensuring that the formula isn’t drying (a problem of retinol creams), Amarte has created a base of argan oil and betaine, plus there’s sodium hyaluronate. Adenosine is an energy source for cells. There’s also collagen in two forms, caviar and rosemary. Another option is Skinfinite Platinum PM Cream 1% Retinol ($79 in the shop). This 1% retinol cream is a 2013 Five Best with retinol. It also has sodium hyaluronate, ceramide, licorice and mushroom extracts. The retinol is micro-encapsulated for time release, helping it to be less irritating than other formulas.

Matrixyl serum

Drugstore: Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream ($30). Olay’s Regenerist range is about as sophisticated as it gets for a drugstore serum, and it has just added to it with this new Micro-Sculpting Cream. Apart from the name, there isn’t much to differentiate it from other Regenerists. Featured fairly prominently are Olay’s signature actives, nianciamide (a form of vitamin B) and Matrixyl, a collagen-boosting peptide. Unfortunately, amidst the all the silicones, aluminum starch, copolymers and parabens, they begin to look a little forlorn.

Alternative: If you are after niacinamide, then there is the above mentioned Osmosis Correct. Or on a similar price point there’s Mad Hippie Exfoliating Serum ($35 in the shop). This little fellow has it all – gentle glycolic exfoliating, Matrixyl 3000 and a decent price point. On the brightening/lightening front, Mad Hippie has also included Gigawhite, which is a complex of six botanicals that are supposed to help fade age spots. Exfoliating Serum also has apple stem cells, vitamin C, white tea, ceramide-3 and melatonin. Read the full review.

Anti-aging serum

Department store: Lancôme Visionnaire Advanced Skin Corrector ($84). Unless you’ve been vacationing on another planet, you can’t have failed to notice Visionnaire’s ads in every glossy magazine going. Visionnaire’s supposed breakthrough is a molecule dubbed LR 2412. My guess is that it is our friend Adenosine. There is also something that is genuinely interesting, at least to nerdy botanist types: jasmonic acid. It works gradually, at minute doses, to modify the processes of growth, development and reproduction  well, in plants, anyway. The rest of the formula is so lackluster as to be depressing. Read more on Lancôme Vissionaire.

Alternative: Osmotics Renovage Cellular Longevity Serum ($85). No guess work on the actives is required here. Osmotics formulates with potent anti-agers. Teprenone is the fourth ingredient and is all about stabilizing the telomeres. These allow cells to get important information on DNA. Telomeres shorten every time a cell divides. When they become very short, they trigger cell crisis and cell death. So if teprenone/Renovage can prevent telomeres from shortening, the life cycle of a cell may be extended. Clever stuff. Meanwhile, tripeptide 1 when combined with soy and wheat proteins, as it is here, becomes something called Aldenine, which is supposed to boost production of it by 300% in a mere seven days.

Day cream (with sunscreen)

Drugstore: Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer ($14.27) is so horrible that someone should tell Jennifer Aniston to stop promoting it. There are 40 ingredients in it and at least 26 (more than half!) are ones that anyone who cares about safe and healthy skincare would actively avoid, and about 13 that are pointless. There’s alcohol, which can be drying and irritating in four forms, ditto unidentified fragrance. The chemist who made this must be a micro-phobe as about half the formula is made of preservatives including all the bad and controversial ones such as BHT, phenoxyethanol and parabens. Alone amongst them is the one active, soybean extract.

Alternative: Prana Reishi Mushroom Shield ($42 in the shop) cannot match Aveeno on price, but if you want an excellent day cream with a mineral sunscreen and antioxidant actives then it is well worth paying the extra. Plus this 2-oz bottle will last at least three months of daily use. As well as reishi mushroom, there are three other fungi with powerful antioxidant properties. No nasties, just good things.

Moisturizer

Drugstore: Neutrogena Naturals Multi-vitamin Nourishing Moisturizer ($12.99). This night cream qualifies for its “Naturals” appellation with two botanical extracts. One is a super food known as inchi, high in essential omega 3 fatty acids. The other is yerba mate, which contains higher levels of antioxidant polyphenols than green tea or red wine. Apart from glycerin, the rest of the formula is disappointing, but I’ve seen much worse at a much higher price.

Alternative: Snowberry Nourishing Rich Day Cream ($96). If you are after inchi and don’t mind that natural mostly means vegetable oils, then stick with Neutrogena. If funds permit the real thing, take a look at Snowberry. This has inchi too, but so much more, including various seed, algae, and flower extracts, oils, and the like – ranging from tomato extract to white coral algae to peat to mother of pearl extract – and various plant-derived actives and inactives. There are also antioxidants in the form of peptides, superoxide dismutase and ubiquinone. A heavy hitter that promises a nearly 40% improvement in skin moisturization.

Cellulite

Department store: Bliss FatGirlSlim Lean Machine ($145). The latest contribution to the war on cellulite is its new at home Lean Machine Body Contouring System. This is essentially a massager with a sucking (or “vacuuming”) action. I love Bliss’ shameless use of terrible puns such as “thigh-tech”, but was less enamored by the device itself. Rubbed across the legs it creates a sucking sensation that only briefly tightens the skin. The accompanying FatGirlSlim cream has something called Qusome, which boils down to caffeine. There’s also bupleurum falcatum, a plant extract purported to address cellulite, although I couldn’t find any research to back this up.

Alternative: Ultra Renew Sculpt ($129) and Osmotics. Ultra Renew Sculpt has three functionalities: ultrasonic, FAR infrared light and EMS (electro massage stimulator). The ultrasonic is at 1Mhz and penetrates a little more deeply than the devices designed for face. The infrared light helps with slimming by encouraging mitochondria in cells to produce more energy, in turn increasing metabolism and burning more calories and there is a study that claimed good results on cellulite from infrared combined with radio frequency. The EMS pads can be used to firm the skin with pulsing and massage. Osmotics Blue Copper 5 Age Repair Body Lift ($95) makes a great companion. It promises to reduce stretch marks by more than 70% and our tester reports that it does! See her before and after photos. Blue Copper 5 combines copper peptides for skin repair with Matrixyl 3000, a collagen boosting peptide. There’s also rutin, an ingredient with an impressive research pedigree showing that it works on broken and even varicose veins.

Body lotion

Drugstore: Vaseline Spray & Go Moisturizer ($7.89). As per Vaseline, this “revolutionary” spray on moisturizer will have you skin super soft faster than you can say oats. Apart from glycerin, the only ingredient of any merit is oat straw extract. It is mostly sold as a supplement that can boost energy (and the libido), but I found no hard research to support this. The key moisturizing ingredient is dihydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, a molecule with water-linking capacity developed by Unilever and Dow Chemical (its also in Dove products).

Alternative: CV Skinlabs Rescue + Relief Spray ($34). Tri-Rescue Complex is in all CV Skinlabs products and is comprised of turmeric, alpha-bisabolol and reishi mushroom. Alpha-bisabolol accelerates the healing process of skin and protects the skin from the effects of daily stress, as well as boosting skin suppleness. The other two are antioxidants. If you want to see the rescue and relief that this spray-on lotion can bring, see our tester’s impressive before and after pictures.

Cleansing brush

Drugstore: Olay ProX Advanced Cleansing System ($29). Olay seems to have entered the power cleansing brush market with a price rather than quality proposition. The brush head is tiny, more of an outsized toothbrush. But the worst thing about it is that the brush fits on to a stubby stem. And from this perch, Olay’s diminutive brush wobbles drunkenly. The accompanying cleanser is ghastly with irritants such as postassium hydroxide and polyethylene.

Alternatives: Sirius Sonic ($49) is the best of the lower-cost brushes with four brush heads and a reasonably robust rotating mechanism. For 1800 micro-rotations per second, the Ultra Clear ($86) is a keenly priced alternative to the Clarisonic that does the job efficiently but gently.

Body wash

Drugstore: Dove Deep Moisture Body Wash ($9). What a pity that Dove’s products don’t live up to one of the best ongoing advertising campaigns of all time. See the video with the woman being drawn by an artist, and I defy you not to weep. I tear up for a different reason with Dove’s body wash. It has an oil base as a low cost way of making it feel moisturizing, which is OK, but that’s the best part. There’s sodium laureth sulfate, which is an irritant and in Germany cannot be used in products described as “natural.” Disappointingly, there’s petrolatum, a by-product from oil production. It is formed as a de-waxing paraffinic residual oil, and contains crystalline and liquid hydrocarbons and must be highly refined before being safe for cosmetics. PEG-30 Dipolyhydroxystearate is also a potential concern since PEGs can be contaminated with impurities and penetrate damaged skin. Most of the rest of the ingredients are far from squeaky clean.

Alternative: Arcona Infinite Odyssey Body Wash ($28). No sulfates, no PEGs, just good things. Rich shea butter moisturizes and there are some great plant extracts, including antioxidant cranberry, passionflower, beetroot and green tea. Best of all there are no sulfates or other  nasty surfactants. The soapy suds are provided by saponin rich yucca extract – taken typically from the root. Arcona has, as far as I’m concerned, made showering a pleasure.

Makeup

Drugstore: Sonia Kashuk Perfecting Luminous Foundation ($9.99). Just looking at this made me think about breakouts. I am so sensitive to chemicals in foundation that I have given up with most mainstream makeup brands. But actually a lot of the scary-looking ingredients in Sonia Kashuk’s foundation are fairly benign, such as potassium sorbate and isohexadecane. Let’s not be sanguine though, there potential irritants such as alumina, propylene glycol, fragrance and the potential carcinogen chlorphenesin.

Alternative: La Vie Celeste Creme Foundation ($39). I want to have my cake and eat it: I want great performance, zero irritation (which means no nasties) and some real-deal antioxidants to complement my skincare routine. I have found my personal Holy Grail with La Vie Celeste’s new makeup range. The Crème Foundation is second to none.